As we emerge from the pandemic and cultural venues have begun to reopen, the question on the lips of all museum professionals has been: how to combine the new world of home experiences with the physical experience of the museum?
Just weeks after the launch of the National Gallery’s immersive family experience, The Council of Guardians, MuseumNext caught up with the gallery’s head of digital, Lawrence Chiles, and Jon Meggitt, co-founder of immersive experience agency Arcade, who worked on the project. We wanted to know how the new home experience works and what role it plays alongside the on-premises AR experience, The Guardian of the Paintings and the Palette of Perception, which was launched in April.
“The first thing to explain was probably that both experiments were a collaborative effort between a number of stakeholders under an open innovation program,” says Lawrence Chiles.
“While the final products are incredible exhibitions and experiences in their own right, they are the culmination of a research and development project between the National Gallery London and StoryFutures at Royal Holloway, University of London. The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and StoryFutures China led by Brunel University’s Design School.
The project was mainly focused on cultural exchanges and the basic initial requirement of the project was to explore new approaches to mixing art and science. Lawrence explains, “What came out of this investigation of science and art across different cultures was common ground around the audience. In particular, all parties involved wanted to dive deeper into the family audience. This, in turn, was manifested in taking a child-led approach – something that really resonated with what our learning teams here at the Gallery had already explored. »
For those unfamiliar with the on-site experience, The Guardian of the Paintings and the Palette of Perception is an immersive mobile augmented reality adventure trail that can be enjoyed by families around the National Gallery. It aims to provide a magical and inspiring new lens through which children (and their parents) can experience one of the greatest collections in the world.
Already a huge success on its own since the unveiling in April, July saw the launch of an in-home tracking experience, The Council of Guardians. This allows aspiring “custodians” of museums around the world to learn about paintings and curate their own art collections through the global online platform, Roblox.
Designed primarily for ages 7-11, the Roblox game lets non-Gallery users experience the world of Guardians – completing quests, discovering masterpieces, organizing and learning in the process.
Originally used as a development tool to facilitate design sprints with school children, it quickly became apparent that the Roblox environment was the perfect vehicle for an accessible home solution that would seamlessly engage children.
As Arcade’s Jon Meggitt explains, “We didn’t want to create a Roblox experience. But we wanted to connect with the kids who were helping drive the project and it seemed like a great starting point to spend time in Roblox.
“From there the seed was planted and we quickly pitched this game format to the National Gallery. If we had chosen to go with a native app and expected kids to download it to enjoy the experience remotely, we knew there just wouldn’t be the same turnout.
“It’s an old cliché, but it’s certainly true that ‘fish where the fish are’. The children would probably have used the app once when told to do so. But, of course, they would have been back on Roblox the next day and we didn’t want this experience to be so short and disposable.
The Power of Partnerships in Delivering Digital Solutions
“We’ve increased the number of digital projects we’ve worked on as a museum over the past six years since I’ve been here,” says Lawrence. “And working in partnership has been essential for us – certainly when we want to work at scale and move into the immersive sector.
“I think working with an agency like Arcade that has experience in various sectors is beneficial for museums and galleries like us. And they bring business experience and an understanding of what different audiences demand that is of value on this type of project, even if it’s not revenue-generating oriented like a retail project would.
“Arts and culture organizations are not immune to commercial drivers today and it is important that we tap into expertise in these areas. While this project was designed to deliver a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), the reality is that it has progressed and evolved into something much more robust and comprehensive – and that’s the real success, I think.
John adds: “Our company mission is to connect people to places through play – and this project embodies what we do and what we are passionate about.
“In our minds, we always wanted to create something that all stakeholders would be proud to share with the public, and that would be well enough received to remain in the public domain.”
As museum professionals know, it can often be difficult to embark on an R&D project with such a wide range of stakeholders. However, Jon claims that this factor was identified early on and agreed upon from the start to ensure it never became an issue.
“Our very first presentation to secure work via StoryLab had a slide that showed all the actors positioned in a circle, forming a circle around the children in the center. That’s how we approached this project. If we always came back to putting children and their families at the heart of the project, it helped ensure that everyone stayed on track and pulled in the same direction.
Indeed, the process of creating the mobile application and the Roblox game involved more than 80 children. With their help, the development of the application has turned into a captivating narrative world.
Young visitors to the gallery are invited to guide a fictitious picture keeper to find a lost “Palette of perception”. This magical item contains gems that give users “powers” that allow them to digitally engage with the paintings.
Through this gamification of collections and accompanying storytelling, children not only play, but also have the opportunity to absorb information about what the National Gallery exhibits.
However, it is important to note that there are significant in-game pauses built into the app and pacing mechanics to ensure that the entire experience does not go through the mobile device.
Jon explains, “We wanted to make sure that the augmented reality elements complemented the collections rather than getting between the kids and the collections. We have therefore taken care to design points where the device must be placed and where direct contact with the objects on display is required.
“One of the changes we’ve made since initial testing has been to incorporate ‘time outs’ in the form of a Keeper skill card. This saves time for families to complete tasks that don’t depend of technology – and it also helps parents explore the museum space at a more leisurely pace than their over-eager children might otherwise require.
“That’s why we incorporated challenges and shared quizzes that can create conversations within a family. We never wanted to use augmented reality for fun.
Lawrence points out that among the many benefits of an augmented reality experience using visitors’ smartphones, the on-site experience is also much easier to manage and maintain for the National Gallery: “It’s not like if the end product was a virtual reality experience that required a number of expensive headsets or goggles.
“We’ve also found that it gives parents an anchor for discussions around the collection with their children, which is really encouraging to see. This kind of commitment is precisely what we were hoping for.
Develop and consider a broader museum ecosystem
As Jon explains, a key part of R&D projects like StoryFutures is to investigate what might be possible for the future and identify opportunities to develop new ideas that may have broader applications:
“In creating this narrative world, what I think we’ve developed has real potential for scalability and future applications. I could see this formula grow for other museums to adopt and for every institution to have a Keeper – whether it’s a Keeper of Fossils or a Keeper of Planets – and that could be applied for family experiences elsewhere.
“It really plays into the original intent of the project in terms of cultural exchange and growth potential.”
Lawrence adds, “This scalability is really exciting for museums like ours. There is scope for scalability within the National Gallery; with other collections in the UK; with museums in other countries and beyond. This beautiful idea of “Guardians” seems to be able to facilitate this frictionless cultural exchange.
Learn more about The Guardian of the Paintings and the Palette of Perception and The Council of Guardians.